Volume Five,
(Mountain Fever, 2015)

Volume Five's Voices is literally its fifth album since its inception in 2008. The titular reference is not to the CDs it's released, however, but to the number of band personnel. That surely puts an additional burden on the group, given that shifting members and membership totals afflict most bluegrass outfits.

In any event, if its name isn't traditional, Volume Five takes an approach with plenty of traditional markers, at least by 21st-century standards, not necessarily the same as those applied a few decades ago when the Country Gentlemen were deemed wildly inventive (as indeed they were in the late 1950s). With V5, as it's called familiarly, some listeners will hear echoes of a major current band, Blue Highway, which integrates old and new sounds into something that all who follow bluegrass can admire, whatever other differences may divide them. I was moved to pull Blue Highway's most recent release, The Game (Rounder, 2014), off the shelf and afford it a fresh listen, from which I learn its sound is somewhat less like V5's than imperfect memory had (mis)informed me. For one thing, V5 lacks a dobro, a big part of Blue Highway owing to Rob Ickes' legendary chops.

This is by way of stating the obvious: that all art occurs in the shadows of what's come before it.

Really, who would want it any other way? Besides, where would Bob Dylan be if that weren't true?

Voices arrived in mid-January, the third heretofore-unheard-by-me bluegrass band to show up in the mail that month. The other two pleased me, as does this one, and all inspired multiple and appreciative listenings. I will not presume to judge which album is "best," a meaningless pronouncement in this context. Even so, by any standard Voices sings happily on its own.

V5's pickers boast credentials as authentic as any that could be asked for. All live in small towns in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi, and prior to signing up with V5 some toured with leading (now competing) bluegrass bands. From founder (also fiddler and lead vocalist) Glen Harrell on, these guys are masters of their instruments, using them to fashion a full-bodied, almost orchestral sound, sharp-edged and thrilling enough to overcome mediocre material. Or anyway it would if there were mediocre material. The dozen cuts -- only two, incidentally, originals -- shine brightly and never dim, and that's especially true, curiously, of the grim story-songs of which V5 is especially enamored, starting with the opener, Dave Alvin's blood-soaked frontier ballad "King of California."

A couple of titles may mislead you. "Going Across the Mountain" is not the Civil War-era folk song associated with the North Carolina balladeer Frank Proffitt, but a darker creation by V5 guitarist Colby Laney. Nor is "Amanda," a Tammy M. Brown composition, the Bob McDill classic that Don Williams and Waylon Jennings cut separately in the 1970s. McDill's is a wonderful song -- I'm sure it's the reason so many babies got named Amanda back then -- but Brown's brings to mind Gordon Lightfoot in his prime. And V5, as it does all it touches, covers it perfectly.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 April 2015

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